Everyone has something to say about Donald Trump. People tell me that Trump is winning because Americans are angry. Political pundits on both sides of the partisan aisle agree on this point. But why are people angry? Like Trump, some of them are racist, xenophobic, sexist, nativist and many other unpleasant things. Many see America going in the wrong direction (whatever that means) with incompetent leadership at the forefront of this change.
As primary after primary prove, lots of people vote for Trump, but I don’t think they’re all just angry Americans, or at least not all angry about the same things. I contend that not all votes express the same discontentment with the status quo or the identical aspiration for certain kinds of changes. A vote for Trump does not necessarily translate into a vote on his personality, his ethics or his leadership.
Put another way, I don’t believe that the 40% of conservatives voting for Trump are all unenlightened brutes. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not here to defend Trump’s supporters (I explained why in my last piece). It’s easy to lump all of Trump’s supporters together and treat them with dismissive “we’re better than that” indignation. Critics look at the dysfunctional Republican Party unfolding before them in the primaries and can’t help but think: “Aha! So Republicans are all of those things they deny to be after all.” Trump is drawing out all of the colors of the Republican rainbow, so it seems. But what good does all this head-shaking do?
A more productive question to ask is: what is this collective grievance that Trump supporters harbor, and where does it come from?
Every presidential election year, the nation gets caught up in a euphoric high; real political change looms on the horizon, and something new is about to take place. Politicians (think Ben Carson) repeatedly tout the ideal of the American Dream and how they will ensure a just government that rewards those who work hard and play by the rules. Our intuitive belief in a system of “fair play” is not without deep philosophical grounding. Political philosophers such as H. L. A. Hart and John Rawls have likened government to a social cooperative in which all members comply with a given set of rules so that each may benefit. In a fair cooperative, each member has an obligation to bear some burdens and, in turn, a right to expect others to do so as well. Government serves to mitigate the collective action problem whereby each individual looks out for himself and everyone is worse off in the end.
Hand in hand with our conception of fairness is our egalitarian ideal. The Declaration of Independence proclaims: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What truths were our Founding Fathers thinking of? And why were they self-evident? At face value, it’s far from clear that all people are equal. We’re different in so many ways—some are superior in looks, intellect and potential than others.
The Bible championed the principle of egalitarianism well before the Enlightenment came around. Christians believe that humans are made in the image of God. That is, we are God’s image-bearers, designed in the likeness of our Creator. We experience emotions, make judgments, desire community and have an innate desire to create and rule. Moreover, we possess immutable dignity. This is the self-evident truth of human equality the founders alluded to in the Declaration of Independence.
Our common-sense intuitions about the dignity of the individual runs deep. Enlightenment ideals help us understand how to treat each other. The Christian perspective explains why we ought to believe it: humans are equal because they are created equal. Human dignity empowers us to pursue life, liberty and happiness. It’s what prompts individuals in a social cooperative to expect their fair share and demand that others play by the same rules.
That we are all made in God’s image doesn’t make Trump’s supporters any more justified in my eyes. But I do think knowing this truth helps explain why they do feel thrown under the bus by the Establishment and special interests. In that sense, their dignity—and their sensibilities and outlook on political engagement—is raising its voice.
Trump is near the finish line, as are his supporters who have carried him this far. But before we throw up our hands in exasperation and find something unpleasant to say about his supporters, let’s remember that they’re made in God’s image too.
Andrew is a junior Government major in the College of Arts and Sciences. God’s Old Party appears on alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.